Riding with the Elite

There has been a post going around Facebook “On the Insane Expense that has become Riding.” Not being a Facebook whiz I’m not sure how to direct you to this post other than to tell you  I shared it on The Riding Instructor Facebook page.

Katherine’s post is in response to a question from a fellow horse lover. She wrote asking, “if it is possible to find a horse that could work toward the Green Incentive Finals for less than $100,000 dollars. One-Hundred-Thousand-Dollars. They were basically laughed off the page. She was told she might do better if she traveled to Europe, purchased a horse there and then imported it to the US. Then spend years of training to make it up. Or, be prepared to spend at least $200,000.”


Katherine explained the origins of the USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Program, and also that this horse lover wasn’t trying to win finals. She just wanted to compete.

Income and Expense

She wrote, “The same forum explained to the author of this post that a semi-decent entry-level horse will cost about $50,000. If it can stay sound. I mean, it's just a $50K horse, what do you expect?”

She talked about the median US income is less than $35,000 and the average income for a college grad is at $60,000 - $70,000. And about how the middle income is squeezed out of horses.”

Reading Katherine’s points about who actually funds the horse industry and its related businesses echoed my own sentiments. Katherine’s points stab me in my riding instructor’s heart, make me angry, and make me want to shout, “Let’s face reality here!”

Before I mount my soapbox, I want to direct you to this article on HorsesOnly with statistics about the horse business in America.

And take a look at the highlights for the American Horse Councils 2017 Impact Study where they state, “Another bright spot for the industry: 38 million, or 30.5%, of U.S. households contain a horse enthusiast, and 38% of participants are under the age of 18. Additionally, approximately 80 million acres of land is reserved for horse-related activities.”

The Good Ole' Days

I grew up in the era where riders were thrilled to have an OTTB to train and show. Where horse show entry fees could be managed with budgeting, and good riding outweighed custom boots or imported horses. I showed on the same show grounds as Bernie Trauig, Neil Shapiro, Harry DeLeyer and Snowman. With legend judges like Gordon Wright. When Olympic teams were formed to be cohesive groups. And the god of hunter seat equitation had barely scratched his name in the showring dirt. Those were the days when talent and hard work beat money. . . most of the time.

Gosh we had fun. And the glass ceiling was way above the clouds. You could work hard and succeed without being cannibalized by the industry you loved.

While horses have been a mainstay of life since the early explorers, they have always attracted the wealthy, especially in competition; sport, and gambling. The evolution of the horse show system was inevitable.

Think of this 

How many of your riding friends have made the Olympic team? How many riders in any given period are even on the Olympic team?

According to this historical overview of the USHJA, the association serves approximately 43,000 members. How many of these members are competing at elite levels, or are even competing in the USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Program? Compare that to the AHC statistics.

The elite showing system only serves a small percentage of America’s horse people.

Katherine is correct when she says, “The current level of expense isn't a sustainable business model for the industry. Without the middle level of owners, riders, and trainers, the entire system will collapse.”

The elite horse show world already seems like a totally different industry than the one the average lesson barn competes in.

Look again at the first three statistics from HorsesOnly.

  1. The horse industry contributes $122 billion annually to the U.S. economy.
  2. The U.S. horse industry employs 1.74 million people.
  3. There are 7.25 million horses in the U.S.

Who Pays the Bills?

Katherine hits the nail on the head when she says, “We are the ones who "fund" the shows that offer classes for the elite. We buy enough tack, meds, clothing, horse show entries, etc. to keep everyone working. Without us, everything falls apart. Tack stores will go out of business. Your vet won't have enough regular clients to maintain their practice. Shows that can't fill their lower level classes can't afford to run.”

I’ll go a step farther to add, without instructional programs for beginners where kids buy their first synthetic paddock shoes and the least expensive helmet, there is no business. It will fizzle out like the air from a whoopie cushion.Can shows afford to run the elite divisions without the lower lever classes?

Is it Necessary for  Everything to be Expensive?

Another truth from Katherine. . . “But, the astronomical prices at the top have filtered down.”

Have you priced a good lesson horse lately” I’ve been looking for a saintly older pony to start my 3-year-old granddaughter on her lifetime of riding. I don’t want one who will test her at this age. I want her to steer easily, stop, go, ride short soft gaits, eventually hop over cross rails. I want a pony who won’t freak out when we go to our first show or other activity. I’m looking for a smallish pony and in my mind’s eye I know what the pony looks like. I don’t want a competitor for pony finals or even one who can win a local hack.

Five figures.

Perhaps the Good Old Days Weren't so Bad

Katherine says, “Our sport needs a reality check. Bring back the B and C rated shows. Allow riders with a day job a chance to participate without having to pick between an IRA or horse ownership. Stop catering to only to the mega-wealthy.”

How about skirting around the elite competition completely? How about an entirely new system of shows? A regional show system? Or a schooling show circuit? Or some of the new competitions?

Horsemen are Finding Better Ways

I loved the comments Kevin shared on the Riding Instructor Facebook page. Among them he said, “If you want to become a better rider, you will get FAR more value out of riding with clinicians than you will riding in the show ring. If you want to ride for fun, you can do that without somebody telling you that you aren’t as good as the wealthy wife of a Google executive who has a string of six horses and breeches that cost more than your saddle.”

Kevin also said, “I don’t get to ride the expensive horses anymore, but honestly, I don’t miss that too much. I enjoy the pursuit of perfection for its own sake, even if it’s unobtainable.

It makes me free to have a bad ride without a melt down- it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be chewed out by somebody. It gives me the freedom to just hack on the trails. It lets me spend three hours just grooming some days- I get to enjoy my horse on my terms, and that’s more exciting than riding an upper level horse.”

You can read the rest of Kevin’s comments if you go to The Riding Instructor on Facebook. I love that he knows what makes him happy in the horse world.

Ruth says, “Now we attend schooling shows. Get the same feedback and experience for a fraction of the money.” Ruth and Kevin are not tied to the elite show system. They have found areas in the horse community that serve their purposes.

It's a Choice

We each choose what we will chase. For some it’s perfection. Yeah, there’s a topic horse lovers are familiar with. And although perfect is a moving target, at least the effort toward it produces improvement in what we do. Effort to compete in a system that is  winning is largely determined by your wealth does not do much for self-improvement (or self-esteem.) Personally, I don’t believe a person is happy when they are beaten by money. Beat me with skill, effort, talent, or training.

Not a Choice for the Horses

And the very sad fact for the horse that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is that if he is ruined by injury or accident, his insurance may pay out for his owner, but his life is worth no more than a common broken-down horse. A fancy horse is only fancy when it’s producing success. It’s a tough price for the horses to pay.

Kudos to you if you’re one of the elite who can maintain horses and competition at the highest levels. And double kudos if you retire and care for your horses when they are no longer able to compete.

Find Your Happy Place

If competing against the elite is not your happy place, you can circumvent these events and still have a superlative horse life, and business. Consider why you began with horses and what gives you satisfaction. If it’s the relationship with the horse or students, pursuing excellence, riding in the country, or competing in a venue where your ability matters, there are many directions to take. You just have to search them out. Or develop them yourself.

If your goal is to compete in a money arena, why not take up fantasy football? There you can be a bigwig and own a stable of athletes worth more than your wildest imagination.

Have you found your spot in the horse kingdom? If your heart's desire is to ride with the elite, I say go for it. Or do you agree with J.C. Wyatt in Baby Boom, when she says, "I just think the rat race is going to have to survive with one less rat."

Here's to successful hours spent pursuing your equestrian dreams.

Barbara Ellin Fox


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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
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